LITTLE ROCK — There is no chance that Arizona or Syracuse or Wichita State will be unbeaten when the NCAA Tournament concludes April 7 in Jerry Jones’ palace.
The numbers are stacked against the only three college teams without a blemish, and although they would never admit it, coaches Sean Miller, Jim Boeheim and Gregg Marshall wouldn’t mind losing one between now and the start of the NCAA on March 18. A bullseye grows larger and heavier with each W.
Just last season, Louisville won 11 in a row to get to 16-1 before a stumble against Syracuse initiated a three-game skid. The Cardinals lost once more a couple of weeks later and then won 16 straight and the national championship.
I always thought Arkansas’ loss to Kentucky in the second round of the SEC tournament was the best thing that could have happened to the 1994 Razorbacks, who were on a 12-game roll heading for Memphis and the league tournament. At 1-1, Arkansas returned to Fayetteville to get ready for a 6-0 run through the NCAA.
Although Indiana had an extremely difficult draw in the 1976 NCAA Tournament on its way to the last perfect record by a college team, the Hoosiers did not have to deal with a few obstacles facing the triumvirate that is 60-0:
• There were only 32 teams in the Tournament in 1976 and 5-0 was enough.
• There was no Big Ten postseason tournament when the Hoosiers were 32-0 and the conference tournament is the perfect trap for a team that completes the regular season unbeaten. In the tournament, lower seeds are desperate to escape the NCAA bubble and nothing works better than beating a No. 1 seed. Even the top seed usually has to win three tournament games to take home the trophy and that may include beating a team for the third time — ask Georgetown about the 1985 championship and trying for 3-0 vs. Villanova.
• There is far more talent available these days and the shot clock and three-point shot initiated in the mid-80s enables dozens of teams to prevail in one 40-minute contest.
Since the turn of the century, Kentucky’s 2012 team is the only national champion with as few as two losses. Kansas lost three in 2008. Every other champion has lost at least four and UConn lost nine in 2011.
On Thursday night, when three top 25 teams fell to unranked opponents, Arizona and Syracuse won on the road. Arizona trailed Utah in the second half before a 14-2 spurt. Syracuse got past Wake Forest despite making 3-of-14 threes and 22-of-33 free throws — numbers that will sink a team sooner or later.
Boeheim laid the groundwork for that first loss when he said, “You’re not going to make those plays all the time down the stretch … be down and go 10-0 on somebody at the end of the game.”
Conventional wisdom is that Syracuse will be the first to lose because the Orange play in the Atlantic Coast Conference and that the first loss could occur Saturday evening against Duke. More likely is that Syracuse lose a road game at Pittsburgh, Duke, or Virginia — the three teams closest to the Orange in the ACC standings.
Arizona has already beaten UCLA, second best in the Pac-12, in their only regular-season meeting, but they could meet again in the conference tournament and the Wildcats have seven league games remaining against teams in the top 55 RPI.
The pick to lose first is Wichita State and the game circled is Wednesday at Indiana State, a team the Shockers beat by 20 the first time around. That day, Dawon Cummings was 7-of-14 and his teammates were 9-of-37. They’ll shoot better in Terre Haute. If Wichita State wins, it’s clear sailing to the postseason.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is email@example.com.